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Maturity Is Not Created by College

Here’s an interesting and well-written essay on what is like to be a young adult who became an unschooler in high school and who then decided not to go to college by Emma Zale that was published in the Daily Kos.

I was struck by this passage in particular, about the relationship between attending college and people’s perceptions of your maturity:

As I began to interact more and more with these mid-to-late-twenties/early-thirty somethings, I noticed something startling -- the majority of them were in the very same situation that I was. We were all working blue-collar (or more menial white-collar) jobs, trying to launch some kind of artistic or otherwise higher paying career. In the case of my co-workers, who were virtually all college graduates, I (the youngest among them) was their boss.

They felt like my peers, and whenever I admitted my age to them, they tended to be astonished. When I would reveal that I had not only never gone to college, I had dropped out of high school... their jaws would literally drop. “But you're so smart,” they would say. “You're so mature.”

To the latter I would often answer: “Well, I've been out of school for nearly 5 years,” and that seemed to resonate with them. But what does that say about what constitutes a person's maturity in the “real world”? Because I had been in it for as long as some of them had, I read as 25-30, when I was really just shy of my early 20s. It seemed that not only was college not always indicative of success, it wasn’t necessarily a barometer for maturity, either.



Words and Deeds Matter: In Memory of Gene Burkart

Gene Burkart, a lawyer, homeschooler, scholar, and dear friend, succumbed to cancer this past weekend at age 62. He met his death peacefully with his faith, family, and friends supporting him through his final days. Gene was, to me, an unsung hero of homeschooling and local politics in Massachusetts, and his death has left me with an empty feeling.

From the time I met Gene in the early 1980s until he died, he spoke about the work of Ivan Illich with clarity and passion. Indeed, Gene patiently helped me to understand and appreciate Illich’s work over time; like many, I was more confused than excited by Illich’s writing at first, and Gene offered insights and suggestions over the years that eventually led to me share his enthusiasm for Illich. Our long drives from Boston to State College, PA, to spend time with Ivan Illich and friends, were full of memorable conversations; we never put the radio on during those trips. Gene became quite close to Ivan; indeed, the last time I was with Ivan was at Gene’s house, where we had a lovely dinner, just months before Ivan died. Gene went from skepticism about Illich’s ideas to a profound embrace of them, including studying with Ivan Illich in Cuernavaca, Chicago, New York, and Pennsylvania over the years.

Gene was always willing to help homeschoolers, and in the 1980s and 1990s he would draft letters to school districts, represent families in court, and provide advice, often pro bono, for homeschooling families in need. In the past decade, homeschooling became so common in MA that Gene was rarely contacted by homeschoolers, a development he was very happy about. I not only sent a number of people to Gene for help, but I sometimes relied on him to help with legal problems we had at Holt Associates, as well as some state-wide homeschooling issues, and he always rose to the occasion with clarity and cheer.

Gene spoke Spanish and worked often with immigrants; Gene’s people-based practice of the law reflected his integration of mind, body, and spirit. Ideas and beliefs are not to be just mouthed but acted upon in life, and Gene did this with gusto and commitment. He was a cofounder of Waltham’s community gardens, and a long-time advocate for world peace. In 1982 he became an active member of Waltham Concerned Citizens, a group concerned about nuclear weapons disarmament; Gene hosted survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima at his home one year and in 2005 he began a twice-monthly peace vigil in downtown Waltham, holding signs and drawing a crowd to advocate for bringing our troops home from our current wars.

In the last few years, Gene turned to writing and he often shared his work with others and through our local newspapers. For instance, I was pleasantly surprised one morning to read this brilliant, concise letter in the Boston Globe (May 23, 2010):

SCOT LEHIGH’S May 14 op-ed “We need it, but who’ll pay for a longer school day?’’ made me wonder: What was his reaction when he was in fifth grade and the bell rang at the end of the day? Was it, “Gee, I wish I could stay here another two hours?’’ Probably he was like most of us. We couldn’t wait for the doors to open.

Many adults tend to romanticize their school days, confusing schooling with learning. Social philosopher Ivan Illich attributed this phenomenon to what he called the “hidden curriculum of schooling.’’ More than any subject matter, more than the content of what is taught, schools teach above all else the necessity of schools. They instill the belief that only in school does real learning take place.

This causes many to have an inflated sense of the benefit and effectiveness of schooling. They think that more school means more learning. The opposite, however, is true. At a certain point, prolonged schooling becomes counterproductive, actually hindering and stifling initiative, creativity, curiosity, and the joy of learning.

How many students today read a book that’s not on a required list? We need less school, not more.

Eugene Burkart


This year, 2012, Gene started a column for the Waltham News Tribune titled “Second Thoughts.” He wrote fluently about social justice issues as well as how his local community has changed, for better and worse. Here is Gene’s last column, published just about ten days before he died. It is filled with Gene’s sense of concern and justice for the individual and his outrage at the horrors of unbridled progress: Second Thoughts: Memories and the Ethic of Hiroshima.

 If you enjoy reading that piece, here is a page that lists all of Gene’s articles that were published by the Waltham News Tribune.

After Illich died, Gene contributed an essay to a book written in Illich's memory, The Challenges of Ivan Illich: A Collective Reflection (SUNY Press, 2002). In his essay, Gene writes how he didn't understand Illich's critique of the modern economy until he had been practicing law for several years:

After a while, I saw the joke. When people asked me, "How's work going?" I would answer, "Never been better. Families are falling apart, so there is plenty of divorce and juvenile delinquency; arrests are up, so I have a lot of criminal trials; auto accidents and injures at work are high, so my personal injury caseload is huge. Business is good." In a strange way all of us in the service economy are feeding off social decay, a kind of cannibalizing of society.

Gene's questioning of his work and life, coupled with Illich's influence, made him realize he could live a good life without selling out his soul or checking out of society. In his essay about Illich's influence on him Gene writes:

I realized that I did not have to quit my day job—I could simply work at it less. I soon began a four-day week, which freed me up to read and study more, and become more active in my community. I did not have to get rid of my car, but I could ride my bicycle to work. I knew I would not be self-sufficient in growing food, but I could do composting and enlarge our vegetable garden. Later, when we had children, it was an easy decision not to put them in school. I also began to see my legal work in a new light. I knew it would not lead to social change (with the possible exception of homeschooling cases), but my clients' concerns were real, they were entangled in a morass or legal and social systems. Perhaps I could be an experienced guide for them through these thickets.

Gene ends his essay by noting his "overwhelming sense of gratitude" to Ivan Illich for all he has given him: "Friendship does not lend itself to an accounting, to economics. The only way I can hope to show my gratitude is to strive to be for others the kind of friend Ivan Illich has been to me." I can say with all my heart that Gene was a kind, great friend and that I am a better person as a result of our friendship.

A memorial service for Gene Burkart will be held at Christ Church, 750 Main Street, Waltham, MA at 11AM on August 25, 2012.


Faking College Degrees to Feed One’s Family

Prostitution caused by degree desperation is hitting a new high in the 21st century. In 1980, when I finished my Master’s degree in English, there were no teaching jobs open for tyros like me, and the only job I could find was as a cashier for a downtown bookstore. The owner of that store had a sign for cashiers that said, “Must have a college degree.” After a few weeks of work I realized that having a college degree had nothing to do with being a good employee in a bookstore (just a few of my fellow cashiers read a lot or cared about the books), and the only reason that was a requirement for work, that I could see, was to keep the many urban minorities seeking work from bothering the owner.

 People with means can always buy a ticket rather than earn a ticket to the job market, promotion, or school entrance, and this sense of unfairness, of gaming the system, has caused many to question the value of college and corporate work over the years. In the August 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine Thomas Frank writes a blistering essay (titled "A Matter of Degrees") about our worship at the altar of college and the residue it leaves upon the minds and spirits of the worshippers. He notes, “Choosing the winners and losers is a task we have delegated to largely unregulated institutions housed in fake Gothic buildings, which have long since suppressed any qualms they once felt about tying a one-hundred-thousand-dollar anvil around the neck of a trusting teenager.”

Frank goes on to list a number of high profile cases of fake degrees being used by deans and officials at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, Bishop State College in AL, Texas A&M, and the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A background checker estimates:

40% of job applicants misrepresent in some way their educational attainments. And he reminds me that this figure includes only those people "who are so brazen about it that they’ve signed a release and authorization for a background check.” Among those who aren’t checked . . . the fudging is sure to be even more common.


I fear Frank’s call for more regulation of higher education degrees will lead to an even more byzantine system of credentialing; in education, in particular, where have we seen rules and regulations decrease in the past 50 years? Indeed, Frank ends this thought-provoking essay with these sobering thoughts:

Never has the nation’s system for choosing its leaders seemed more worthless. Our ruling class steers us into disaster after disaster, cheering for ruinous wars, getting bamboozled by Enron and Madoff, missing equity bubbles and real estate bubbles and commodity bubbles. But accountability, it seems, is something that applies only to the people at the bottom, the ones who took out the bad mortgages or lied on their resumes. The pillars that prop up the system, meanwhile, are visibly corrupt: the sacred Credential signifies less and less each year but costs more and more to obtain. Yet we act as though it represents everything. It’s a million-dollar coin made of pot metal—of course it attracts counterfeiters. And of course its value must be defended by an ever-expanding industry of resume checkers and diploma-mill hunters . . .


John Holt and Grant Colfax on Education in 1985

This past weekend I tried out a new version of my Teach Your Own seminar and I learned a lot, and I think most of those who attended felt they did, too. The seminar participants had great questions and responses that helped me realize new ways to arrange my format, and all agreed that I needed to allow more than three hours to complete the session. Since then, people from ME and NJ have asked me to bring the seminar to their states, and we’re working on it.

While rethinking this seminar I went through all my old files, speeches, and presentation materials and discovered some cool things I hadn’t seen or thought of in years. For instance, when we discussed allowing children to do real things and real work and how it helps integrate self-esteem and knowledge, I remembered this article about Grant Colfax from 1985. I didn’t include it on Saturday because I felt I had too much material (I most certainly did!), but I’m glad I remembered it to share with you.  First, there are some great quotes from John Holt in the article, but best of all, as a young person with a nontraditional education who got into Harvard, Grant has some very interesting observations that I hope you enjoy, too.




Schools versus Prisons

One of the funniest sections of the movie The War on Kids for me is when a chorus of children try to identify photos by noting which is a school or a prison; the humor occurs because it is so hard to tell the difference. The movie then sadly shows, in a variety of ways, how much like prison modern schooling has become. The saddest thing, to me, is that most viewers support this vision of education, feeling that school should be prison-like (though a humane, soft prison) because children can’t be trusted to learn anything worthwhile unless forced to do so. As a result, the word education has been misconstrued to mean something done to us rather than something we do for ourselves with help from others, and school, which was a leisurely activity for ancient Greek aristocrats, has been turned into a form of jail for most children.

The original meaning of the word education is something every person and animal does: nurture and rear children. The Oxford English Dictionary notes the Latin word educare is the root of the word educate, and defines it this way: “To bring up (young persons) from childhood so as to form (their) habits, manners, intellectual and physical abilities.” This is not the same meaning as the often used and substituted word educere—to lead forth—that is related to our modern word, educe, and is typically used by schools to justify their compulsory and authoritarian methods. By confusing the origins of the word educators give themselves license to lead, or draw forth, whatever they feel they need to put in or pull out from a student. This is totally different from the suckling, nurturing educational relationship of the original word.

Is it no wonder then that today our politicians talk about educating the public about their positions, meaning to convince the public to support them? Dictators in various regimes use educational techniques like compulsory attendance and rote, or entire facilities, such as the Vietnamese re-education camps, to make the public believe or see reality as the government or other institution wishes them to. The ironic use of the word education hit a new height for me as I read about the problems associated with the Community Education Centers, a for-profit company that operates halfway houses for prison systems in different states. By taking a word like education and continually using it to refer primarily to obedience to authority we lose sight of its original meaning—growth through nurturing from concerned adults—and replace it with compliance to a mandatory process that has very little to do with nurturing natural growth and everything to do with managing the contents of another person’s brain.


Columnist James Altucher wrote a column about unschooling recently and he compared schools to prisons. Here is his list of similarities, FYI.

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